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Free dance camp allows low-income kids to reach for the stars

The Aspire Project aims to build confidence, discipline through dance


by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Kassandra Pittman, 9, wore her special fringed skirt to her dance class, offered through The Aspire Project and the Rosewood Initiative.Ask any mother with a daughter, and you'll discover dance classes are a virtual right of passage.

The leotard. Ballet slippers. The recitals.

And the expense can be astronomical, even for financially stable families.

For single parents, and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, such classes are out of reach.

Take Mary Pittman, a single mother with four daughters, two of whom live with her in the Powellhurst-Gilbert area of East Multnomah County. She makes ends meet with welfare and can't afford a dance class for her youngest daughter, Kassandra, 9.

But last week, she watched Kassandra dance and sing thanks to a free dance camp at the Rosewood Center, located in the 16100 block of Southeast Stark Street.

"I think it's great that they have this," Pittman said. "It's hard to find things to do on a tight budget. And they can still experience things and not miss out on things because mom doesn't have any money."

For two hours a day all last week, about a dozen third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls learned to step in time, leap through the air and reach for the sky while perfecting their performance to "When I Grow Up," a song from the Broadway musical "Matilda" by Roald Dahl. The class ended on Friday, June 21, with a performance for friends and family.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Sue Darrow founded The Aspire Project to give underprivileged girls the opportunity to take dance classes that their families could otherwise not afford.

It's all part of The Aspire Project, a nonprofit organization that offers free dance classes to children who otherwise would not be exposed to the art form.

For the past four years, the project's executive director Sue Darrow has provided free dance classes year round to students genuinely interested in the arts, but whose families don't have the resources to pay for them.

The project launched in North Portland's lowest-income schools, but last year branched out to Gresham and outer East Portland elementary schools through the SUN Community School program at Harold Oliver, Alder and Hartley elementary schools.

Earlier this year, Darrow contacted Jenny Glass, executive director of the Rosewood Initiative, to see about a possible partnership.

The Rosewood Initiative — an effort to create a sense of community in the crime-ridden, high-density area centered around Southeast 162nd Avenue and Burnside Street — had just spent two years in a 1,000-square-foot space tucked next to a laundromat in an L-shaped shopping plaza on the southwest corner of Southeast 162nd Avenue and Stark Street.

In February, it moved to a closed pool hall, creating limitless opportunities for the cavernous 7,100-square-foot space.

"We have the space, we have the kids," Glass said, while watching one of the dance camp's practice sessions last week. "For a lot of these girls, this is the first time they've been able to do something like this. And it's all right in their neighborhood."

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Jermanie Gelly, a standout in the class, practices the song 'When I Grow Up,' from the Broadway musical 'Matilda' by Roald Dahl.Darrow, who founded The Aspire Project, can relate to both the girls and their parents.

She said she grew up with an overbearing abusive father. Despite a passion for dance and a college scholarship, she ran away from home, got pregnant and had her first son at the age of 18. For nearly 20 years, she struggled as a single mother, and never shook the sting of being unable to afford extracurricular activities for her sons.

So, when she got remarried and her circumstances improved, she and her husband, Dan, founded the nonprofit organization in 2009.

The mission is simple and yet profound: To provide dance classes to children who otherwise couldn't afford them while also teaching life lessons that will help them reach their dreams — whatever they may be.

Students learn how to obey rules, work hard as a team and to not quit when the going gets tough.

"It gives these girls confidence in themselves," Darrow said. "That no matter what their circumstances are, that if they work hard enough, they'll be able to aspire to whatever goals they may have in life. They find out they feel good about themselves and can accomplish anything."

But in any given moment, the girls are not concerned about any life-altering achievements.

Student Kassy Smith, 9, was more interested in contending with the top hat portion of her costume.

"It's kind of itchy," she said during a break for snacks and drinks.

She liked the stretching, exercise and movement of the camp, though.

"You can learn to dance and they help you with easier steps so that when you're older, maybe you can take a class that's a tiny bit more advanced," she said. "We learn fun songs. And we get to keep the lyrics, so we can sing it to our stuffed animals at home."

Kassandra Pittman, also 9, said before she came to the class, she would dance by herself at home.

She was having the time of her life.

"I told my mom that if she hears about any more dance classes, can she sign me up," Kassandra said. "I like doing the dances in it, and I like how the teachers are really nice. And I try doing my best. And I'm actually doing really good, and I hear that from my mom and my sister and my dad every day."

Meanwhile, their parents soaked in the experience, recording practices and performances on their cell phones.

"That's pretty darn cute right there," said Debby Smith, as her daughter Kassy struck a pose at the end of the number. "That's what memories are made of," Mary Pittman said, and sighed happily.

Things to know

The Aspire Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing dance programs for students, ages 5-12, who are genuinely interested in the arts and whose families cannot afford them. The organization offers ballet and tap classes, summer camps in dance and theater, as well as theater workshops and master dance classes by guest instructors. President Susan Darrow founded the organization in hopes of not only teaching young girls dance steps, but also the discipline and self confidence they need to succeed in life. For more details or to donate, email Susan Darrow at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit theaspireproject.org.




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